Horsing around in the Lake District. Langdale, Horseshoes, and back.

Horseshoes

Stick some of these on your four legged friend and liberate it to journey on for hundreds of miles. The protection and support will allow motion from one place to another, from one point of time to the next, and in that space you can fill up the horses saddle bags with trinkets you find, the memories of things you’ve seen, smelt and heard, the experience of being. Like the trajectory of life, the horseshoe, out, around, and then back to where you begin, in the ground. It is important what you do whilst out and around, what hoof or footprint you leave in the mud, how that mud splashes up your legs, covering you, the spray of life, the different shades of soil, shrubbery, and substance. All of mankind begin how they end and end how they begin, the more lucky of us will find ourselves moving fairly safely through some variation on the basic expectations of our life, food, shelter, education, employment, family, security and so on. Some could have the comfort of a lifestyle, where luxury of leisure, arts, music, sport, and entertainment, is at their disposal. So if you are in such a lucky position, what better way to remind yourself to be grateful for what you have got than to deliberately make life difficult for yourself by running up and down mountains.

The Langdale Horseshoe Fell Race is a revered date on the Fell Runner’s Calendar, and this is even more significant this year as it marks the end of the England National Fell Running Championships.

A chilly October morning, and cars pull into a field full of more, greeted by the guiding arms of a fluorascently clad marshal, as the final goodbye to summer is obligingly observed by the high and bright sunshine in a blue sky, with the odd sugar spun white cloud faint and distant. A crisp whiff of muck cuts through the chilly early morning air, which forces me to buy an extra layer from Pete Bland’s stall just by the startline. The tussle of runners bodies bop up and down as limbs and extremities are encouraged to warm up. With my previous racing experiences now including a painful blowout on Blencathra, still I attest to the over zealous portioning over Tebay Services a bit too close to race time, a Fell Side freezer, managing to save some gas for the last blast down to the finish, and a real arse slider in the straight upper downer Steel Feel, I ooze misplaced confidence. Believing I have now have the experience of a seasoned runner (Ha!) I am committed to my latest race strategy, devised in the car on the way here, to go as fast as possible at the start, and then to fade away gradually throughout the race , yes losing places, but the heroic start rendering me hopefully in the overall upper half of the final standings. As long as I go quick at the start, and run out of energy whilst arriving at the end, all will have gone to plan!

The course is described on the registration page as ‘Rough, tough course, with almost exclusively rocky and slippy ground.’(Amblesideac.org.uk) and runners can expect to cover approximtely 12-13 miles, with approximately 4600 feet of ascent, which is slightly higher than Britiains’s tallest bit of land, Ben Nevis. Though this route will go both up and down, and repeat in a similair pattern multiple times over what would appear to be particularly unrunnable terrain. The race demands the navigational and mountain reading skills of each individual runner.

If you are at all unsure of your ability to complete the course safely you should gain more experience and come back another year’…

On paper I have completed the compulsory mix of relevant race lengths to deem me ‘experienced’ enough….. But still a bit nervous might end up in the roaming into the wrong valley, stuck on a crag, or worst found at the bottom of one. Which does and has happened here in the Lake District.

Runners may make their own path between the checkpoints, with very faint trods left from past footfall offering only the keenest eye, and more earnest reccy-undertakers, suggestions of the fastest routes. The piss wet through reconnaissance mission Victoria and I attempted a few weeks back was of no real benefit due to the omni-drizzle curtain drawn 360 degress, except for perhaps getting a rough idea of the overall shape of the race route- which with the name Horseshoe is almost a spoiler. If the weather stays this clear and bright the pressure is off a little bit in navigation respects, as long as you can keep someone in your sight, and they have a rough idea of where they are going, you can tag along. If this goes to plan, the runner in front should hit these checkpoints, and in turn so should I:

  1. Stream/Path
  2. Thunacar Knott
  3. Esk Hause Shelter
  4. Bowfell
  5. Crinkle Crags
  6. Pike O’Blisco
  7. Cattle Grid above Blea Tarn

A quick glance at the elevation profile shows the extremities of the race’s highs and lows, looking like a heart rate monitor measuring my pre-race palpitations.

Shuffling through the bodies, I place myself right in the front row of runners, who are recognised as either winners of previous races or Strava celebrities. Theres no show of ego or superiority in the back to basics mentality of fell running and the friendly mood on the bridge by the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel reminds everyone what a pleasure it is to be a part of. The Langdale fells surround high above, a glacial and volcanically formed amphitheater, amplifying the grandeur, beauty, and scale of the task ahead. 

The grassy start is fast across the bumpy fields towards the bottom of New Dungeon Ghyll. A swarm of bodies, elbows, shoulders, knees, all knocking each runner to and from the line. Sometimes you are pushed from the track, edged out, and have to leap up a grassy verge to keep going, or for example in my opening mile, end up having to stop dead, reassess, and try and fumble your way back into the tide of vests with zero elegance or athletic prowess. The pace is really quite fast, and I am gassing after thirty seconds. Only another 8610 or so to go…

The climb up alongside the beck to the first feature to aim for, Stickle Tarn, is long and steep. A week ago a group of Matlock friends came up to visit, and the gentleman , in-between flexing muscles, eating crips, and drinking pints of bloody beer , spent a blooming nice Sunday morning wandering around this area. We came down the rocky path which we are now going up, buoyed along by joking and laughing, which has now been replaced by wheezing and spluttering. Though I am out of breath and loads of people are taking over me, the lead group of skinny, bearded, and mostly Cumbrians are already breaking away far up the long, steep drag and off out of sight. This is exactly what I planned. Soon enough all the runners are in the stream, clambering up massive boulders, some routes quick and nimble, others laborious and involving risky crotch shots of short shorts leg stretches up to high foot holes. The sound of dry trainers becoming wet is accompanied with a fair racket of encouragement from the watching general pubic, some who are supporting friends and family, others who just went out for a quiet walk and look a bit shell shocked at the sight of a herd of almost 400 runners clambering towards them and into the increasingly remote uppards of the Langdale Valley. Getting towards the top of the first big climb and noticing the wealth of strong runners pushing past and ahead, the air smells a of B.O. of trepidation, eyes  clench and search, excited and wrapped up in the atmosphere of race day and being out on the fells.

Twenty five minutes in and, ‘Go on!’ exclaims a surprised voice of encouragement, and I look up from the bed of the stream, to see Jen who we went to the Fellside Race with earlier in the year, stood on an outcrop. She must be hear cheering on Karl, who has already disappeared over a fold in the hillside towards Thunacar Knott, and my sister, amongst lots of other Keswick faces.

‘Cheers!’ And as the course flattens out slightly to skirt the edge of Stickle tarn, I catch my breath and follow closely behind the brown and purple/yellow banded vest of a Dark Peak runner. The waters of Stickle Tarn, life-blood for the valley inhabitants below, mirroring the dramatic dark easter face of Harrison Stickle, replenishes runners in the sense of reward of reaching its serene edges.  Originally damned to collect water to feed the now debunk, Elterwater Gunpowder Works, the absolute scramble up the volcanic scree and boulders behind the tarn and onwards to the next checkpoint of Thunacar Knott is anything but explosive.

A grizzly 2.300 feet has been clambered up after two and half miles hunched in a constant grueling motion. Now, the grassy beginnings have submitted to the harder grey rock, the sure footedness of the glacial valley floor is replaced by the sensation of rocks moving down and away from you, and  gives struggle as you push up against them in an attempt for purchase. The racers are now less dense in their packs, with sub groups splitting off as individuals runners follow different pairs of trainers up alternate paths. The freshness of the mountain air is injected with the smell of damp moss and stone, released with dislodging footfall. Yellow vests a plenty, some Keswick others Ellenborough, Mercia, maybe more, spread across the scramble up. A fella with a long pony tail, a confident gait and a Keswick vest leads the pack ahead, he has got a decent whip on, and then when no sooner do I break even with him, sharing an encouraging greeting to one another, does he zoom off ahead and away downwards and through the soggy bog trotting of the next mile or so.

It has taken about an hour to cover the first four miles, and exasperated breathing marks a load of us already knackered.  The down hills and flat boggy sections are hard work, not being able to move my legs as fast as my brain would like but at a speed more kind to my respiratory system. Pushing harder up the uphills, some of the ground lost on the slower sections is made back. I have settled into a group of eight or so, plugging different paths based around the scent of a trod across the moorland. The views are mega, and the perspective across all the different fells and crags of the Lakes lift the spirit, if you remember to look. Spotting different rock outcrops, tarns, and streams, I play games of trying to work out where Borrowdale is, which peak is Scafell Pike, and wonder which way of these big bastard hills will be next. At times, you forget the race, and that your legs are moving, and soak up everything spectacular you see, these are very magical mountain moments, but in the moment rare as most of the time is spent trying to remember how to breathe and where to put your foot next.

In a split decision, a runner in front takes completely a different line from the rest of the pack, and goes straight across the long grass and soft untrodden ground. Sod it! Feeling all free and fancy, I decide to go with him. He weaves through bog, boulder, and tussock, and the risk of going off-piste adds excitement, though end up unconvinced that his route is in fact any quicker, as we end up at Angel Tarn at exactly the same time as the runners who stayed on the footpath. It doesn’t make any difference, and have a laugh when turning around and see how many runners had then followed me, assuming  knowledge of some secret short cut. Sorry!

As we pass Angle Tarn on our left, at around 2000ft above sea level, another bloke with a very futuristic looking head of long straight hair takes a huge flop in a petey puddle, which takes him up to his hip in mud stuff. The beautiful Angle Tarn, apparently one of Alfred Wainwright’s Favourite spots, is just another of the continually stunning occurrences about the route, and I think to come back here in a less lactic acid afflicted state. Reaching Angle Tarn also triggers trepidation. First, are we really only half way? And secondly, I am reminded of the Harvey’s Fell Map Description of the next section of the race. The Traverse…..

The off camber traverse beneath Esk Pike is slippy, full of hard outcrops, and difficult to follow. Eventually it leads up to Bow Fell. This is the section of the race the shoe shop seller had warned about, and a bit that you needed to make sure you had the right fitting shoes for, ‘You can’t have any roll in your ankles on that or it’s game over’. The drop of the hillside, down and away to your left, falling away from the drama of the overhanging dark crags to the right feels hostile and is impossible to get into a decent rhythm on. The tiredness is now just as much in your head as your legs, as the demand on concentration required to stay up right is continual, not only in keeping going forward, as well as upwards, but also in avoiding going sideways and sliding off down the hillside. The trod goes on for ages and ages, the glorious views across to the highest peaks helps to occasionally inspire everyone to keep going, though I am now beginning to fray with haste at the edges, which is slowing others down, and putting the pressure on as we all try and navigate the hazardous slog without major incident.

Shortly onwards, and there are a stream of incredibly light footed runners who overtake, and continue as if they are running on a track. Their confidence and sureness of footing is brilliant to watch, and they waltz across nature’s obstacles, which are now forcing me down almost to a walking pace. Sensing some frustration building up, I try and push on, aiming to keep up with a couple of Ellenborough and Herne Hill runners. These two woman are formed of sinew and stamina, and steam off as soon as they have passed me. I manage to keep up for perhaps thirty seconds or so, there skills are to silky, and I am suddenly very aware of being scared of falling over.

And then I do fall over.

Putting my right foot down on the muddied trod, it skirts across the front of my body, slipping and tripping the rest of me over and off of the pace, dropping down. I land awkwardly on a large rock, digging into my upper thigh, a dead leg. OWWWEEE!! Everyone behind slows down, non take over until they are sure I’m not hurt.

‘Are you Okay?!’

‘Woahhh, need a hand?’

‘Everything good?’

The chorus of support summons me straight back to my feet, and onwards. A quick thumbs up, and I think how I could quite easily have wallowed in self-pitty on the floor for a bit longer. But it’s not really the fell running way of doing hurting, and the ethos of just getting over it and getting on with it is something worth carrying onwards in itself.

An alien landscape, the upper reaches of the Lake District fells are mazes of rubble and volcanically formed slabs. From Bowfell there is virtually no vegetation, and walkers, runners, dogs, and sheep, the only visitors to the highest area of the race route, should pay their footing as much attention as they do to the uncompromised view of the contrastingly lush valley floor below. This is decorated with the odd farm, base for the folk and animals who work the soft glacially cultivated soils, and a grey blue winding thread, the resultant Langdale Beck, aswell as spoiling all with yet another 360 degree panorama of the Lake District.

The earlier slip has put an err of caution in my footing, and I take the next few miles steady. Coming off Bowfell and towards Crinkle Craggs I stick onto the back of another new group of runners, and we all slog up a grassy and steep climbs hunched over and wheezing. Off the top of Crinkle Crags it is really rocky, and very quickly a cue of nervous runners has formed at a notorious geological feature. Known as ‘the Bad Step,’ this is nothing short of a pretty severe cliff drop of off the edge of the main ridge. Many walkers and runners opt to skirt around the drop, avoiding having to shimmy down the hard side precariously, though I missed the trod completely for this and have ended up at the top of the drop. Looking down, I don’t quite know how to get down it without making a scene. The two women who I had been following were making their way down without too much hassle, and so I took my turn in sliding my arse to the edge and dangling my legs down hoping to find a foothold to help me down the drop. The official Fell Race route of this section is annotated with the suggestion to ‘Avoid Bad Step, or jump on passing walkers for cushioning’. There’s even a murder mystery novel written about a fell runner getting pushed off it to  his death in this very race and in this very spot!

Fatalities avoided, safely down, and keeping a comfortable pace off of Long Top, the next stretch across the high up and open moorlands, looks over towards Wrynose and towards the Eskdale Valley on one side, and Langdale on the other. The route follows a long path, which most runners omit, choosing to run on the less slippy long grass to the sides. A bloke absolutely flies past me on the path and in a spontaneous and desperate attempt to keep up with him find myself hurtling down the crazy paving way more quickly than feels right,  just letting my feet fall and bend in to all positions that the juts ask for.

With a fast previous mile or so, breathless, it is the last pull up to Pike O’ Blisco. 10 miles in and with about 4000 feet of climbing so far, it is a very appealing option to slow right down and loiter around without much intent. But I have become almost robotic in my movement and keep plodding with my head down and, taking the most direct but certainly not the least steep route upwards, manage to gain a few places.

The valley floor is more clear in sight now, and the marshals have time to wish us well as the gaps in the field make there job less frantic than it can be. Away from the hill, along the last arc of the horseshoe, you can just make out the cattle grid checkpoint, above the winding road that leads to Blea Tarn. The hills drop away very quickly, and the tussocky surface and enticing gradient invite you to hammer it down. The sun is still beaming, and the great visibility means everyone is going to freely flail down the final stretch.  In a group of three, I hang onto the back as we traverse a stream path, and climb out the other side. We have dropped about 1000 foot in the last mile and the previous miles in everyones legs means we barrel down the hill like out of control elephants. The mad path descender has gone ahead, and now another one of the three is pulling away. I try to keep up with him on the final drop to the cattle grid, it feels as if my lungs are scraping the oxygen from each drop of air like a plasterer loading up the dregs onto his hawk and trowel, but he pips me just there and everything cries give up. These marshals do have a job on their hand, as a wave of bodies appear from no where, and they rush to note down numbers on their gradually filling up list of runners which have passed.

The very last drop to the Langdale Campsite, just along from the finish line, follows the zig zags of a mountain bike trail and is predictably steep and quick. ‘Uggggghhh, I think I shouldn’t have pushed so hard on that last bit,’ says the closest competitor, like a true sportsman I pry on this show of weakening and manage to eek the last bit of energy out and skirt around him.

‘GO GO GO!’ I spot Jenn again, and her mate points for me to go down to the left of the zig zags,

‘Go straight down, just go straight down!’ He shouts in helpful excitement.

I hurtle down right on the line of being completely out of control. Through the campsite, and ahead of the other bloke.

The finishing field is full of people, sprawled out knackered, having a much needed drink, chatting between different clubs, a PA system is shouting out results and mandatory information about pies and pints in the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel. Loads of people shout and clap for all the runners who are coming in dribs and drabs, my sister and Dad spot me from over the wall and give a last burst of encouragement. My mum asks for an immediate race analysis as soon as I cross the line, to which I reply with a catastrophic whimper and wretch before pacing around in circles to try and regain a grip on reality and oxygen. dizzy and sick.

Keswick AC have a load of runners in the very top times of the race, with the fastest time coming from Karl, who apparently looked like he’d just been out for a jog when he came in at just over the two hour mark. The winning time was an incomprehensible 1.59.51 hour by Sam Tosh of Rossendale Harriets & AC. 388 runners started, and I was the 97th to finish, in a time of 2.40.37 hour, which I was chuffed with.

At the finish line, once the start line, I am somewhat muddier, sweatier, and more knackered than before. It is a great feeling to have a run the best that I could have run, and the fact that it is a fairly respectable Top 100 time is a bonus. Though, the big thing that brings all and most  of these different types of people, back to running in the hills isn’t how fast they did it, what place they came, or what their fastest mile split was, but over and more so is the sense of gratitude and  astonishment in the sights and sensations of running absolutely free in the hills, and by the tarns, and crags that have been encountered. The draw is in the purifying power which the outdoors and exercise induces, and competition is just the excuse to get outside, to keep up the miles, and to find new places.  Being outside lifts the spirits, and exercising treats and purifies the mental sewage that we unwittingly accumulate overtime. The enlightened and limitless mental space found through being out there is like the clear, bright sky, spanning above the Langdale Fells throughout at the race and at the finish line, and will carry on adding brightness to the runners who took part well into the future.

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